Over Memorial Day weekend, we built Jackson and Carter a treehouse.
Jack has been asking for one for four years. When he first asked, I knew we were moving from Cartersville and so it didn’t make sense to build one there. Even before we had finalized the purchase of our home in North Carolina, Jackson was asking for a treehouse.
And so we built one. My father in law and I put it up in two days with strong assists from Jackson who put in many screws himself. It was a gift of epic proportions: a labor of love for Jackson from Henry and I who were exhausted and totally sore afterwards.
That’s what fathers, and grandfathers, do, labor in love for their children, giving them gifts just because we love them. Those gifts come, or should come, with no expectation of return. We just give because we love. And we love our children, and grandchildren, simply for being who they are.
If we do this for our children, how much more so does our Heavenly Father provide gifts for his children? We know the answer to that question, just as the people listening to Jesus ask the same question in the sermon on the mount knew the answer. God has gifted us greatly.
And one of the ways we see and talk about those gifts are as spiritual gifts, given to us out of God’s love through the activation of the Holy Spirit.
We are all gifted spiritually. But often, we fail to see and utilize those gifts.
Let’s hear Paul’s definition of spiritual gifts from his first letter to the church in Corinth.
Speaking in tongues.
That’s the controversy driving Paul’s response here. The people in Corinth wonder if they’re all supposed to speak in tongues to show that they’re actually saved.
In the temples around them, they see pagan worshippers who do the same. Those who are truly spiritual among those pagan worshippers can speak in never-before-heard languages or can understand what a speaker of tongues is saying, offering interpretation. Such practice is, perhaps, as old as human religious practice itself.
And of course the church in Corinth knows about the speaking of tongues on the day of Pentecost. That’s today, Pentecost Sunday, when we remember and celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit, the fulfillment of God’s promise to be with us, always. Jesus ascended back to heaven, saying the Advocate would come and empower the disciples to do ministry. And that’s exactly what the Holy Spirit does on the day of Pentecost and every day from that moment on.
The Holy Spirit comes in power, to activate the gifts of the people to serve God and love each other. That’s what Paul tells the church in Corinth as he writes them this letter. They, and we still today, have the power of God within us, motivating us and calling us to action.
And yet, we still try to act like gods ourselves. That’s the temptation of every human: to become like God.
Back in Genesis, the people try to build a tower to reach God, wanting to be like God. God scatters the people building the Tower of Babel, causing them to speak a variety of languages so that they cannot understand each other and thus cannot coordinate building this ziggurat. This story is how Genesis explains the emergence of the many different languages spoken in the world.
In Acts at Pentecost, Babel is reversed. Jerusalem is full of people from every place, speaking many different languages. When the Holy Spirit descends, they still speak their native tongues but now those receiving the spirit can understand everyone as if they were all speaking the same language.
Then the gathered crowd hears Peter preach about the spirit and about Jesus as if he was speaking in their native language!
Where God had once separated the people, now God brings them back together through the activation of the Holy Spirit.
That’s what happens at Pentecost: the Holy Spirit activates the people to hear and respond to the gospel message. Through the empowerment of the same Spirit, the disciples are able to offer their gifts to the world: Peter through preaching, Paul through traveling, others through healing and prophesying.
They are gifted spiritually and their gifts: healing, preaching, prophesying, speaking in tongues, are what we might first think of when we hear spiritual gifts. For such supernatural experiences are what we expect of spiritual gifts. The Holy Spirit is a supernatural being, so it would make sense that we would receive supernatural powers when the Holy Spirit comes upon us at baptism.
It would make sense that we would experience supernatural powers in that regard. Often, the expectation is we all are supposed to have such supernatural gifts. Spiritual gift inventories tell us as much. These have been around for years with their lists of particular spiritual gifts and the expectation of revealing what supernatural power God has given you.
The Corinthian church has the same expectation. There are church members there who have supernatural gifts and others, many others, who believe themselves to be saved but show no supernatural gift. The speakers of tongues accuse the non-speakers of not really being saved. This offends the non-speakers and a huge division erupts in the church in Corinth, threatening to undo their witness.
It’s funny how some controversies never die. Churches today have the same disputes. The reason the Pentecostals broke away from us Methodists is because of a difference on just this fact. Whether or not you can speak in tongues continues to divide churches and serve as a point of controversy. Just as it was in Corinth as this baby church experienced the power of the Holy Spirit in their midst.
We, like the church in Corinth, know of examples of folks who are gifted in supernatural ways. We hear stories of spectacular spiritual events through one or a handful of gifted people. We have relationship with people who seem spiritually special.
So what about those of us run of the mill folks, who have no supernatural, spectacular, or special spiritual gifts? Have we yet to discover what those are? Do we need to become more spiritual to tap into them? Are we too sinful to realize them? Should we take an inventory to learn what our supernatural spiritual gift is? Or, maybe, are we not really saved but think we are?
Those are all the kinds of questions the church in Corinth is asking. And they’re the kind of questions people have asked ever since. Which is too bad because Paul answers the question definitely:
Spiritual gifts do not have to be supernatural, spectacular, or special.
Spiritual gifts are the spirit’s activation of who God made us to be.
We are fearfully and wonderfully made. We are images of God. We are children of the father, brother and sister of Jesus Christ himself. We are already special.
The Holy Spirit causes us to realize that supernatural truth. When we were knit together by God in our mother’s womb, we were gifted, waiting for the Holy Spirit to activate that gift for use in the body of Christ.
And when we put our natural gifts to use for the body of Christ, it’s spectacular.
That’s what we mean by spiritual gifts: they are the gifts God implanted within us from our birth, activated by the Holy Spirit to be used for spiritual purposes; for the common good as Paul puts it. Sometimes, these are supernatural but, very often, they are normal things like administration, listening, encouragement, intellectual prowess, or financial skill.
We all have gifts. We probably know ourselves well enough to know what we’re naturally good at. Paul’s question to the church in Corinth and to us today is: are you putting those gifts you know you have to work for Jesus Christ? Are your gifts serving the common good? Do you use those gifts in a prayerful spirit, just the way we talked about prayer last week?
That’s what Paul wants the people in Corinth to ask. Yes, he gives a list of some gifts, but it wasn’t meant to be an exhaustive list. In a part we didn’t read, he goes on to say that every body part is essential to the functioning of the body. In the ancient world, the metaphor of the body was often used to reinforce that some people were more important than others, like visionary leaders as eyes being more important than lowly servants who were the pinky toe.
But Paul says the pinky toe is just as important. If you’ve ever broken a toe, you know it’s essential to your body! Paul’s point is to turn this metaphor on its head: every part of the body is of equal importance. In other words, no one’s spiritual gifts are more important than someone else’s. The gifts that are more noticeable and receive more praise are not more important than those that go unnoticed and receive no praise.
In God’s economy, everyone is equal. In God’s design of our selfhood, everyone is equal in their differences. In God’s implanting of gifts to each of us, we are all equally endowed.
Some are gifted in ways that show out more than others. I get recognized for preaching, for example, but I don’t think that’s how I’m primarily gifted. Many of the ways I understand myself to be gifted are things that go unnoticed. For example, I am strong at seeing how a group of people operates, finding inefficiencies and problems, and solving those without harming the group or individuals. That’s a gift I utilize that I bet few have ever noticed.
And it’s those gifts that often go unnoticed that can make the biggest difference. This church wouldn’t function without those who are gifted at administration and lend those gifts for the church to use. We couldn’t function without those who quietly do things like restock bathrooms, change bulletin boards, sign checks, handle communion, send cards, participate with the prayer team, set up rooms, build sets, and do internal accounting; all things quietly done, all things that might not look like speaking in tongues but are every bit as vital and every bit to be celebrated.
Because each person I just referenced is giving of his or her spiritual gifts to the church, putting them to work for the body of Christ. They are gifts to us, giving us the gift of their talents, talents they received as a gift from God.
Most, if not all of us, are like this. We have gifts that God gave us, gifts we use for the body of Christ to spectacular fashion, but gifts that mostly go unnoticed.
But that’s the thing about gifts: we give our gifts to others without expectation of return. We don’t give gifts to be seen or to be recognized. We don’t do things at church so others will notice or so that we can feel good about ourselves because we helped the church. We give our gifts to others because God gave them to us. And according to verse seven, we give of our gifts for the common good. Giving for that common good is reason enough; we should give with no expectation of return.
And when we do, the Holy Spirit activates those gifts to do spectacular things. We are indeed special. The spirit makes our gifts have supernatural impact.
Too often, we have misread this chapter to think that we must all be supernaturally gifted. Paul’s point is the opposite: our gifts have supernatural impact. And that impact is spectacular for those around us if we are giving of our gifts in the right way.
And what is that right way? We only have to read Paul a little farther. Paul is methodical and moves quickly from speaking about spiritual gifts to his very famous verses on love. He says we can have all the gifts in the world, but if we don’t love, if we don’t use them in love, there’s no point. We are a resounding gong, only so much noise, an annoyance.
But when we give of our gifts out of our love for others, a love we received from God, the spirit activates our gifts to do spectacular, if often unnoticed, things.
Love, love for God, love for ourselves, and love for those around us, is the grounding from which we are to use our gifts. If we use our gifts, no matter if they are noticed or unnoticed, with an expectation of return, we are not acting in love. If we come to church doing things expecting to receive praise, we are not using our gifts in love. If we do something for the church, expecting others to notice, we are not using our gifts in love. If we provide in some way for our families or friends or community with an expectation of receiving praise or recognition, we are not acting in love.
But if we give of our gifts, if we offer ourselves to our church and community, if we utilize our gifts for our families and friends, with no expectation of return but simply because we love God and love others, we have given others gifts the way God gives us gifts. Because the Holy Spirit activates us to do so; the Holy Spirit grants us the power to go and give ourselves for others.
The Holy Spirit causes us to embody the gifts God has given us, if we will give of those gifts out of love.
That’s what Paul wants the church in Corinth to hear: everyone is gifted, everyone’s gifts are of vital importance to the kingdom, for we are the body of Christ. None of us are the full body; not even Jesus Christ is the full body. He is the head, we, the church, are the rest. Whatever we are, however we are gifted, we are to embody that gift, put it to use, for the kingdom out of love for God and love for each other.
And that goes for any age, for at every stage of life, we have something to contribute; a gift of our selves to give into the world: babies who inspire our hearts and remind us of the fragility of life and children whose confidence and unlimited visions inspire us to see what’s possible. God has gifted us that no matter our age, our station, our reach, nor our influence. We are all able to live out our giftedness for the common good.
We are fearfully and wonderfully made. That means, through the activation of the Holy Spirit, we are all gifts to the world. You are a gift to the world, all by yourself. God made you, and me, and all of us, to be gifts in our own way through loving on the people around us, being the best version of ourselves we can be, serving the common good.
So the question is not what spiritual gift you have. The question is not how you’re supposed to be living a spectacular, supernatural, existence. And certainly a lack of a supernatural gift does not mean you are not saved.
The question is are you giving the gift of yourself to the world?
How has God uniquely gifted you? Are you putting that gift to work for the world around you, without expectation of return, but simply out of love for God and love for others?
Spiritual gifts do not have to be supernatural, spectacular, or special.
Spiritual gifts are the spirit’s activation of who God made us to be. The Holy Spirit has activated you to live out the gift of yourself into the world.
We are fearfully and wonderfully made. We are images of God. We are children of the Father, brother and sister of Jesus Christ himself. We are already special.
We are all gifted spiritually. Go and live like it.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.